Obama vows to strengthen ties with Asia-Pacific region

by Takehiko Kajita

Calling himself America's first ''Pacific president,'' U.S. President Barack Obama pledged Saturday to strengthen the relationships between the United States and other Asia-Pacific nations in close partnership with old ally Japan.

''We will do so through our close friendship with Japan -- which will always be a centerpiece of our efforts in the region,'' he said in a major address in Tokyo on the U.S. policy toward Asia.

''We will do so as a partner...we will do so as a Pacific nation...and we will do so with the same sense of purpose that has guided our ties with the Japanese people for nearly fifty years,'' Obama said.

''Our efforts in the Asia-Pacific will be rooted, in no small measure, through an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan,'' he told an audience of about 1,500 people.

Portraying the U.S.-Japan alliance as a ''foundation'' of security and prosperity for the two countries, the Hawaii-born Obama said the U.S. commitment to Japan's and Asia's security is ''unshakable.''

Obama, on the first leg of his four-country tour of Asia, also pointed to the need for stepped-up cooperation with emerging China to tackle global challenges -- even if there are issues on which the two nations cannot agree.

''China's partnership has proved critical in our effort to jump-start economic recovery. China has promoted security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan,'' he said.

''And it is now committed to the global nonproliferation regime, and supporting the pursuit of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,'' he said.

While saying the United States will not seek to ''contain China,'' Obama made it clear that Washington ''will never waver'' in speaking up for respect for the religion and cultures of all people in China.

''Because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America,'' he said, adding, ''But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.''

For the prosperity of the region, the U.S. president said, ''We must strengthen our economic recovery, and pursue growth that is both balanced and sustained.''

Obama urged North Korea to return to the six-party talks on ending its nuclear programs, as well as to come clean on the fate of Japanese citizens Pyongyang abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

He said the United States is ready to offer North Korea a ''different future'' -- a future of ''international integration,'' ''economic opportunity'' and ''greater security and respect.''

''The path for North Korea to realize this future is clear: a return to the six-party talks; upholding previous commitments, including a return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,'' Obama said.

''And full normalization with its neighbors can only come if Japanese families receive a full accounting of those who have been abducted,'' he said.

Obama also called for Myanmar's military junta to take actions, including the unconditional release of the country's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to improve relations with the United States.

''Existing sanctions will remain until there are concrete steps toward democratic reform...as Burma moves in that direction, a better relationship with the United States is possible,'' he said.

The U.S. president expressed his desire to see the United States play a key role in charting the course for the Asia-Pacific region with and through multilateral forums.

''As an Asia-Pacific nation, the United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve,'' he said.

Obama attached importance to the 21-strong Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, of which the United States is a member, and its relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

He also voiced the U.S. interest in ''engaging with the East Asia Summit more formally,'' referring to a forum currently run without U.S. participation.

Obama arrived in Tokyo on Friday for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He will attend an annual APEC summit in Singapore beginning Saturday. The trip will also take him to China and South Korea.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on Nov. 14, 2009)